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Beyond stereotypes, a sympathetic assessment of an officer
on 11 December 2014
It is claimed that when Zhou En Lai was asked about the effects of the French revolution he replied, cryptically, "It is too soon to tell". A revelation that judgements on history become more judicious with time, then so should be the standing of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.
Gary Mead's biography aspires to confront today's appraisal of Haig, heartless bungler of men's lives. Haig was a quintessential product of his time and place, Victorian notions of empire and ideals, Army traditions that inculcated dutiful rigidity over mental agility. Remarkably, Haig is still an enigmatic figure. Little in his diaries and letters reveal inner emotion; introspection is missing though a deep-rooted faith is present.
Mead demands his own impartially, but becomes sympathetic to his subject. Haig's every virtue was likewise a vice, fortitude is obstinacy, reserve is aloofness or insensitivity. His name is ridiculed as if he invented the horrors of the trenches and the futility of military thinking, which is unfair. If Haig was unimaginative and conservative, he could be unbiased to new ideas (except the value for cavalry). If social connections helped his advancement, he was no a schemer in political expediency. Mead examines the opinions that surround Haig and sharply challenges many. He does not shrink from ineptness in the Boer War nor the carnage of 1916. He probes the motivations of Kitchener, French, Lloyd George and the press barons and the ambiguous feelings between them.
Was Haig an architect of victory? Did Britain have Generals better qualified to change the desolate strategy and pointless sacrifice in Flanders? Would another man have administered the BEF, hopelessly ill prepared for 1914, more competently than Haig? Mead offers his assessment but let's the reader do so too.
Beyond books of battlefields and politics, this biography adds much; a work of research, scholarship and tireless questioning of `facts', eminently readable and difficult to put down. The reader lives in the society that formed Haig. For those who are comfortable with facile verdicts, read, and be not quite so sure of them again.